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Five Years of All-American Food and Drink at Russell House Tavern

Russell House Tavern is celebrating its fifth birthday in Harvard Square this year, and owner Patrick Lee reflects on the past five years and what's coming up next, including a new restaurant across the river, State Street Provisions.

Patrick Lee
Patrick Lee

Does it feel like it has been five years?

Yes. I think that in the first year of a restaurant, there’s so much change and growth that sometimes that first year feels relatively longer, but years two through five — because there’s more of a deliberate growth and change — they tend to go by a little more quickly. So five years feels about right.

How did the opening of Russell House Tavern compare to the other openings in your group? [Grafton Street and Temple Bar opened first, in 1996 and 1998 respectively, followed by Russell House Tavern in 2010, and then PARK in 2012. Plus, Grafton Street relocated in late 2001 into 2002.]

Russell House was a tricky opening because the kitchen is in the basement. Luckily the largest part of the dining room is also in the basement, but figuring out how to make the two floors work so you could service it the best way was the most difficult part of the opening. My recollection is that it went pretty smoothly, though. It was something that we knew was going to be tricky, and we made some of those adjustments fairly quickly on the fly early on and continued to hone them until it was smooth.

Did you have a lot of the same team from your earlier restaurants, or did you mostly bring in new people?

It was a little bit of a mix. We had a manager or two from our restaurants, some servers, the chef was from Temple Bar. With all of our places, we like to have a little bit of a mix so that we have some experience to build that foundation, but it’s also great to get some new people in to get a fresh perspective as well.

How have you seen the dining scene in Harvard Square change over the years?

Grafton Street is going to be turning twenty years old next year, so I get a lot of these questions now about how Harvard Square has changed — it’s so funny; we still think we’re the new kids on the block, but not so much. [Laughs.] I think with the advent of live music in Harvard Square, Beat Hotel and The Sinclair have really re-energized the square and brought a new demographic, which has been fun and exciting. Just like the rest of Cambridge, Somerville, and Boston, there’s just been a growth of restaurants as well, and I think you’re going to continue to see that over the next several years as well.

Are there any dishes that have stayed on the menu the entire time, things you just can’t get rid of because people love them too much?

I think what we’ve tried to do is keep the format of the menu the same, so you have your apps and your entrees, you have small plates, we have the raw bar, we have flatbreads, and I think as long as people see that structure, it gives you a little more leeway to make seasonal changes. Although some things you never want to change, you really do have to change them seasonally just so the menu stays fresh and people are still excited about seeing new things. I think what you try to do is have your regular guests and your new guests sort of understand and trust that whatever that seasonal change is, it’s going to be good.

Can you pinpoint a moment over the five years when you first realized, Hey, we’re on to something? This is working?

Earlier on in the restaurant, maybe the first three or four months, we were trying to figure out how the space ran the best. Probably for the first four months, the entrance to the restaurant was on JFK Street through the tavern, and at a certain point, we shifted the main entrance to the alleyway. I think when we did that, it really allowed the restaurant and guests to sort of understand how we wanted the restaurant to flow, so when you entered the restaurant, it was very clear that there was a downstairs and most of our guests were being seated there, and I think that was a nice jumping off point to really allow the restaurant to grow.

When we were conceiving the restaurant, one of the most important things was to connect these two spaces — where the raw bar sits upstairs was a wall before, so we opened up that wall as much as we could, so if you were in the tavern space or you were entering through it, which you did for the first several months, you understood that there was something behind that wall. Continually reinforcing that and making both spaces desirable but in a different way.

Over the years, as key staff changes, how is the evolution of the menu and the bar program driven? How much of an impact does a new chef have on the menu, for example, and how much is predetermined by the existing concept?

I think what we try and do for the bar program and for the menu is that we keep that structure — so when we opened, we’re an American tavern, we’re serving all-American beers, we’re serving an all-American wine list and craft cocktails, and that structure has never changed. The same with the menu — you keep that format but you allow for seasonal changes and for the chef’s own personal style to shine through in those seasonal changes. But also guests know that there are certain things on this menu that they can depend on, and I think that’s really been beneficial to us over the years. The bar program and the menu have seen this really great consistency in that the people at the helm of both have been there for several years. The bar manager today, Ashish Mitra, was here through the previous three bar managers, so hiring from within and seeing that growth really allows for consistency within the program.

Any big changes in store for the next year (or the next five)?

One of the most gratifying things for us is, five years later, to still see that dedication and commitment from our teams and making small changes that make a big difference over a long period of time and still being excited about it. That’s still happening, so we hope that that continues. We hope that we’re able to continue to grow and maybe open up a few more venues and give the people who have worked for us for quite a long time opportunities in different places.

So coming up next, you’re crossing the river?

Yep, we’ve secured a space at 255 State St. in Boston [the former City Landing space], which is near the Aquarium, and right along the Greenway diagonally across from the eagerly anticipated Boston Public Market, so it’s very exciting for us. We grew up in Boston; we’ve been over here in Harvard Square for so long that it’ll be nice to take what we’ve learned in Cambridge and apply/tweak it for Boston. It also gives us the opportunity to have Tom Borgia, our chef here at Russell House, open up that space as the executive chef alongside our culinary director, Mark Goldberg.

We’re also excited to have Kyle Powell heading up our bar program. He’s been a longtime friend of the group, having worked with us back when Redline was still open and then again at Russell House before pursuing other opportunities.  One of the many positive things about growth is the opportunities that it allows us to offer our talented team.

Have you stuck around Cambridge just because that’s where you kept finding the right spaces, or did you deliberately intend to stay mostly in the Harvard area until now?

I think when you’re in an area, you understand it more, and you hear about the opportunities in that market, so I think part of it is that, and part of it is getting to the point where you’re able to make a move like this. Harvard Square and its community — the blend of University and city culture — will always feel like home for us; we even built an event, our bi-annual Harvard Square Tasting Tour, based on the ties we feel and interest we have in the area. So while we’re very much excited to open in a new part of the city, don’t be too surprised if we open a new property in the Square down the line.

Were you looking specifically at that neighborhood downtown, or did the opportunity just happen to come up and it was a good fit?

We’ve looked at a lot of spaces, and one of the things that we care about in restaurant spaces is the infrastructure.  We believe that the infrastructure of 255 State St. offers our team a terrific opportunity to create an exciting restaurant for this historic area of Boston.  We’ve got a great set-up for the dining room, and we have the capacity to create semi-private dining/event areas, much like we have at PARK.  We also have the front and back of the house room that should allow the restaurant to flow nicely for our staff and our guests.

What kind of a concept are you looking at over there?

It’ll be somewhat of a hybrid of Russell House and PARK. It has a little bit of both of those venues, and I think that space might take a little bit more from PARK, and maybe the menu might take a little bit more from Russell House.

What kind of an opening timeline are you looking at?

We’re hoping for late 2015.

Any lessons that you’d take from Russell House for this next opening?

There’s always things that you take from each buildout that help you in the next buildout. Usually, though, you encounter some unique issues in the next buildout that you didn’t really quite see coming, but we’ve been through five or six now, and we try to plan for every possible thing that can happen. They become easier as you move along and you prepare more thoroughly.

Anything else you want to tell people about the new place at this point?

We’re going to call it State Street Provisions. We really wanted to tie the name into the history of that area. State Street had a lot of significance in our colonial history as the throughway from the busy Long Wharf trade center up to the Old State House, and obviously provisions has a strong food connotation while also tying into the mercantile history of Long Wharf.  We’re excited to be down in that area.

Russell House Tavern

14 John F. Kennedy Street, , MA 02138 (617) 500-3055 Visit Website